An older gentleman literally chased me down in the parking lot this morning to tell me how much he appreciated my reading.
I put my transmission in park and rolled down the window.
“You read so beautifully,” he said, tearing up (I kid you not). “You put the emphasis on the right words, and it means so much to me. Thank you.”
“Thank you so much for telling me,” I said. “I am only an instrument, but it is still nice to hear.”
“Have a good day,” he said.
“You, too,” I said, rolling up my window and pulling away.
I am a reader at my church, and that’s how I started my week. A simple gift — took me three minutes during a 45-minute service — and I made someone’s day (and he made mine!). It wasn’t just the old man either. When I arrived at 7:45 a.m., I was greeted with a cheery chorus of “Monica must be reading today.” (Let’s be clear here: I don’t remember the Sabbath day and keep holy every week; I’m usually only so devoted when I’m scheduled to read, but it’s nice in any case to be greeted warmly.)
I’ve been a reader at this Missouri Synod Lutheran church for seven or eight years, but I didn’t learn how to deliver the Bible readings at this church. I learned at a Catholic cathedral (to which I belonged — and was a reader — for about five years before I, alas, got divorced). Volunteering in nearly any role at a cathedral is serious business, and cathedral readers were trained to do so with proper reverence. Here are a few tips I’ve learned for being the kind of reader at church who gets noticed for the right reasons:
1. It’s not about you.
” … do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
~ Matthew 10:19b-20 (RSV)
No matter what the topic, all good speakers know a speech or lecture or performance is more about the material and the audience than the performer, but this is never more true than when one is reading sacred text for an audience of believers. I always say a little prayer before I read at church: “Let me be an instrument.” This helps calm nerves, and reminds me Someone other than me is in charge.
Get to church early to practice your reading(s) out loud. (Even better if you know the readings and the Bible version, practice at home the day before.) It’s not enough to simply get the words right (and correctly pronounce names and places); understanding the sentence structure — the subjects, the verbs, the clauses — will help you emphasize correctly. A quick note about your attire: Choose to wear something reverent but bland; you want people listening to your words, not thinking about your fashion choices.
3. Context matters.
In the Lutheran church (mine anyway), readers deliver the first and second readings (usually one of the Old Testament and one from the New Testament), and the pastor always reads the Gospel reading. Even though I’m not speaking it, I always read over the Gospel reading to help me understand why these three readings have been chosen to be delivered together. There’s always some thread that runs through all of them, and understanding that thread helps me understand what point I’m supposed to be getting across. Find out the title of the sermon, too; sometimes there’s a clue there.
4. Take your time.
Walk — do not run — to the altar and the podium. Arrange the microphone if you must. Take a breath. That slight pause you create before beginning the reading gets attention and gives the congregation a moment to prepare to listen.
5. This is not a performance.
Don’t be dramatic. Let the words tell the story. There is no reason to pretend to be the voice of God or to “wail” or to “quiver” or whatever the text describes and, God forbid, don’t act anything out; let the words of the Bible speak for themselves. That’s not to say you can’t vary your speed or volume and pause appropriately; simply do it in a way that calls attention to the words, not you.
Reading at church is important work. Imagine! The words you read have been around for millennia — inspired by God and shared among billions of believers to teach, comfort and inspire. It is a gift to be a part of it.